Full-Spectrum Blues: The Self-Denial of James Blake
This is a drag, as just six months ago he seemed like England’s foremost fireworks salesman — a fun dude with a Loki streak, parlaying subbass-excavating mindsex and synth-chord magic tricks fit to dazzle both voracious eaters of electronic music and dabblers whose primary parlance was rock. In late 2009, the lithe, London-based producer was wrapping up his music studies at university when he began applying his formal training to dubstep; the first song he unleashed publicly was a remix of “Stop What You’re Doing,” by bass scion Untold, translating a somewhat formal bit of dancefloor-ready UK garage into an astonishing, four-minute electro-aria with build and movements. Two EPs and a couple singles later, he had forever shifted bass music’s path with alien textures and an uncanny knack for fortissimo, inadvertently transforming a genre that was on the fast track to the trash bin for its increasingly redundant, testosterone-juiced wobble. (“Bro-step,” as it were.)
The British music media, with its endearing (and enduring) capacity for hyperbole, leapt right on that pony, adorning Blake’s music with names like ‘post-dubstep,’ and ‘post-everything.’ More descriptive adjectives, it seemed, failed to convey exactly how far he takes us past the particular space-time in which presently live; perhaps we all just should have jumped into a wormhole and called it a day. But that works, too — the CMYK and Klavierwerke EPs felt like a slider-journey into his brainspace and fans stateside went bazonkers, too. The EPs inspired worldwide ‘best new music’ boners and capped top 2010 lists outlet-wide.
The single “CMYK” was the best. Over the summer, my friends and I slammed it like a narcotic, nerdily sitting around in living rooms and just zoning out on its seraphim-invoking brilliance before scrambling to hit the replay button once more. Taking wispy samples from Aaliyah and Kelis, he hid fragments of pop songs within a pop song, scissoring RNB into wispy confetti before he swept it under a majestic chord horizon. The title was appropriate — Blake’s chords and melody were so voluminous they seemed to suggest synesthesia, shades of cyan and magenta informing his notes. Even now, after coming up on a year of listening to that track at least monthly, the thrill of it never diminishes. It remains huge.
Nonetheless, Blake hasn’t yet gone balls-out maximalist, but he doesn’t shy away from big gestures. On his eponymous, debut LP — as with parts of Klavierwerke — he generally hangs up his hat and guns for minimalism, substituting RnB samples for his own voice, which veers between blue-eyed soul (Robin Thicke would not be mad) and blue-eyed blues (Ben Folds?). The sample-dumping is certainly a function of passing trends, which in British dance music evolve at mind-spinning speed; around CMYK time, it was de rigueur for English producers to have their way with buried RnB.
I spoke to Blake last year between the release of CMYK and Klavierwerke for a profile in The FADER, and he alluded to his focal shift. “CMYK was the EP where I’ve gone through those moments in R&B that everyone remembers subconsciously,” he told me. “The second EP is where I got really bored of doing that and wanted to sample my own voice and feel like I was part of the production instead. I’ve sampled my own voice before, but these tracks are really introspective. They’re recordings of me playing piano and singing at home in Enfield on my own. It definitely has its own place in time.”
He carries this tradition on James Blake, which is rife with gingerly played piano riffs, needle-drop rhythms and only the slightest hints of bass here and there to punctuate the glacial palette of his voice, which on the whole, sounds painfully lonely. However strange, though, even with his own vocals, frank and pained — judging from the lyrics, often self-deprecating, he appears to believe he may be an asshole — it feels like we’re getting less of him. Like he’s proffering his most vulnerable self but immediately wishes he could take it back. Even the album cover (above), an abstract photo of Blake that captures him midway through a headshake — no, no, no — feels like an exercise in self-abnegation, his face blurred out, no ego, just wisps and blue.
Electronic music fans, I’d venture to guess, generally accept the fact that most people on earth would prefer to listen to music with vocals, appealing to the fundamental human instinct for speech. Relating to a track is potentially easier when the intent is direct. On James Blake, he doesn’t bother himself with metaphors much, opting for simple lyrics about love and heartbreak — Why don’t you call me/when we both know/what I am/what I am, what I am, for example, with certain parts pitched-up so that he can sound as though he’s dueting with a lady soprano. It’s ostensibly straightforward, but as though to throw us off with his hardened exoskeleton, he constantly he punches holes through his vocals so they fade in and out, just vapors, pocking up his careful, crystalline harmonies.
Even with his super-human impulses — including an a cappella outro and a Feist cover that gets everyone’s panties in a bunch — against the backdrop of his Megaman tendencies, the album just feels wan. His first works experimented with how space could be infiltrated by avalanching crescendos, which he’d occasionally rescind for quirky side-timed in-jokes that felt like mischief. He perfected the art of the pause, stopping a skittering synth build out of the blue for just long enough that we started to feel uncomfortable, before smashing it back on our skulls, an extra dollop of sub-bass on top. It’s serious music — I can’t not compare his tactics to some of my favorite classical composers, like Scriabin and Gyorgy Kurtag — but that shit had deep funk, and it had clear DENOUEMENT. Truly, if there’s ever a way to tell a complete story with an almost entirely instrumental song, this dude can do it. But whether he just got bored with making big bass excursions or not, this inverse — devalved space to see how much tune it can devour — feels like he’s experimenting himself into conventionality.
None of this is to say his first LP is not an accomplishment, particularly in the context of his newly inked stateside deal with Universal Republic — the US has likely not had an artist this brilliantly avant-garde on a major pop label since major labels started morphing into Dubai-sized mondo-conglomerates. And this album will certainly help him spread his wings to a larger audience. But it still feels like he cleared out the richness to make way for self-sacrifice.
Yesterday, I listened to Blake’s record directly after downloading a soca track called ‘Wine to the Side,‘ by Benjai. It’s coming up on Carnival season in Trinidad and Tobago, and for the next month Caribbean party flavor will be bubbling out from studios not just across the islands, but from London and Brooklyn. I hope some of the generous joy and celebratory excess seeps into Blake’s window from the streets.